Homeschooling newly adopted kids

I got an email today from a mom in the process of adopting a sibling group of older kids and hoping to homeschool.  She wondered what kinds of resources I might suggest.  I thought I’d share my answer here in case others were also in this situation.


There are so many possible ways to homeschool, and to do it well.  As you are starting out, you won’t really know lots about your kids’ learning styles and abilities.  So plunge in with something that seems reasonably simple and don’t worry too much.   Just get to know your kids and gradually see how learning goes.

At first I would plan to spend lots of time just living and doing things together with lots of talk along the way.   Cook together, play games, go for walks, etc.  Any type of conversation will help them learn English. Keep the school very simple:  reading/phonics, handwriting, and math is plenty, in very short spells, probably totaling no more than 1-3 hours a day for the first 6-12 months.

In afternoons for an hour or so,  you can turn on PBS or educational videos with captions turned on.  This will help in their language learning.  And it will also give you some down time, which most likely you will desperately need, with the arrival of several kiddos at once.

Definitely get a phonics program with lots of pictures.  That way you can work on names and letter sounds at the same time. Timberdoodle is a great homeschooling website, and gives good descriptions of various programs. Remember, with any homeschool curriculum purchasing, you’ll want to find things that seem workable for YOU as a parent, as well as being a match for your kids’ abilities.  Most likely that will take some trial and error.

If your kids have already had some school in Ethiopia, they will be familiar with learning things by repetition, and may not be at all familiar with things like story problems, or even know enough English to work them for awhile.  Math workbook pages that have only numbers will give them something familiar if they have done some school in Ethiopia– you can print off all sorts of them at websites like this:

After a year or so of learning English, you may enjoy letting them use a math program like Teaching Textbooks.  It is computer based and allows kids to listen to instructions as many times as needed before doing problems. Kids type answers into the computer and the computer grades the work and stores it in a gradebook for you to look at later.

I think one of the biggest things to keep in mind is that it is going to take a good long time to get proficiency in English, somewhere between 3 and 7 years from the research I’ve read.  So patience and realistic expectations are important.  A book that I’ve enjoyed that might help with balance and perspective in tough moments is The Successful Homeschool Family.  I found a lot of wisdom there for teaching any child, but especially those who for whatever reason are learning at a different pace than ‘average’.


Now, readers, it’s your turn.  I know I’ve got lots of homeschoolers AND lots of adoptive parents here.  Will you also share your wisdom on this topic?

PS–Check out this post full of free homeschooling ideas!

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  1. Mary,

    I always suggest that newly adoptive parents approach the first year as they would approach life with toddlers/preschoolers and basically just live life with almost NO academic work besides SLOWLY working in reading aloud to them. . . even that, at first, can be overwhelming. . .

    There are SOOOOOOOO many things going on in their brains that the added stress of school just seems like too much. We basically did an “unschoolingish” preschool year the first year home – basic skills, language, lots of rocking, holding, feeding, loving, re-teaching, talking, . . .

    well, really, we spent the first year or two (both times we adopted sibling sets) doing THERAPEUTIC PARENTING! LOL!

    THEN, once their hearts and brains are WELL on their way to being truly healed, we started in on the more “academic” looking learning.

    I know this is probably WAY out there for most people, but it is what worked really well for our 9 children from “hard places” that we adopted as older sibling groups.

    I’d be happy to talk with anyone who is interested in this idea more.

    • I really like your idea about just getting their “hearts and brains well”. We are in the process of hopefully adopting our foster children, a sibling group of 3. My 3rd grader is assessed at a kindergarten math level and my 2nd grader is not doing so well either. We have been dead set on homeschooling our almost kindergartener and we have an almost 2 year old who is horribly behind in his development. My only worry is that the state is going to try to say we are not educating our children. After all they have been through in their short lives, how do I keep this from effecting them in a negative way?

  2. It makes me sad that here in Indiana, children in foster care are not allowed to be homeschooled. I worked with so many when I was in the workforce that of course had attachment issues and I knew would just thrive if they could stay home and learn and work on that relationship with their foster family. I had one family successfully get it approved by a judge though it took a lot of hard work and this was for a teenage girl.

    • We live in Arizona and cannot homeschool our foster children either. I think it would make all the difference but we cannot do anything until our adoption is final and the bio parents rights have not been severed yet! I know and pray that we get to adopt them since they are the second set of 3 from the same mother that is going this way. It is very sad that they will not allow us as “parents” to do everything in our power to help and EMpower these wonderful kids!!!

  3. Do you recommend Teaching Textbooks for Algebra 2 and above? My son goes to a small Christian school and I find the math curriculum to be difficult in ways that aren’t helpful. I am interested in finding a better way for him to take the advanced Maths. Thanks!

    • Beth,
      The highest TT we own is pre-algebra, and it seems to be not as rigorous as Saxon math, which we used previously. I LOVE that TT allows easy repeating of lessons, and actually teaches kids concepts. TT last year was IDEAL for my 6th-7th grade immigrant kids who needed to hear a lesson and its explanation several times, and it also did the grading, which freed up my time. (LOVELY!!)

      BUT we had excellent SAT test results from our 4 oldest kids with Saxon. I am not 100& convinced Teaching Textbooks is thorough or difficult enough for that purpose. It may get more difficult as it progresses. But looking at it side by side with the same-year Saxon it does not seems as complete, and is certainly not as good with reviewing concepts (one of the strongest points of Saxon). I am currently trying to figure out if I will continue to use TT for high school, or if I will go back to Saxon.

      • I have been in the same boat lately. I use Math U See but have found it doesn’t work for us with Algebra and up. I lacks good instruction and repetition. We just stared Dive Into Math which uses Saxon. His dvd lecture is great and the kids can pause or rewind to re-watch. It has so far been fantastic. Rainbow Resource sells it for a great price.

    • We’ve loved TT!!! I can’t say enough good things about it! My son is in Algebra2 and is doing well. We switched to TT from SOS ALG 1 mid-year last year. It was an answer to prayer. There is a solution cd where all of the problems are explained in detail. Just FYI- the upper levels are not graded for you like the lower ones, but it hasn’t been a problem for us.

    • Two thoughts regarding your question, one that will address using TT with older adopted kids and one that will address TT with your non-special needs student (I don’t know which you are referring to with your question).

      1) If you are thinking of using TT in the situation of hsing older newly-adopted kids, I don’t think it matters how MUCH math they get in the beginning, just that they are progressing, especially if they have OTHER learning challenges besides the language/attachment/adoption factors. It is unrealistic to expect a 12 yo who has never had any schooling (or has had very little) and who has language issues to be on grade level with his peers. As mentioned, it will take a long time to catch up. So I think TT is excellent in the ways Mary mentioned in her post for this situation. Just adjust your expectations. (Of course, if you find you have a math whiz on your hands, then you’ll want to find a suitably rigorous curriculm to use–I’m not suggesting you purposely hold them back).

      2) What I have heard in the HS community while researching TT for our own use, is that it tends to be less rigorous than other curriculum when COMPARED SIDE BY SIDE (ie: Alg. 1 to Alg 1, Geometry to Geometry) BUT, when used consistently all the way through (pre-Alg through high school), TT does do an adequate job teaching math. In other words, if you use TT Alg. and then switch to a different curriculum’s geometry, there may be deficits, but taken as a whole, TT fills those in over time. As with any curriculum, what is a good fit for one family or even one child may not work for another.


  4. The phonics and reading curriculum I like is a game disguised as learning…Ring Around the Phonics

  5. I have no adopted, but I would also recommend having at least a year off…there will be enough to get adjusted to for these children without adding alot in schoolwork…if you feel like you need something, then I would just work on English skills. After they got used to the idea that this is their home, then I might do a bunch of field trips…Diana Waring says that you can make up quite a large portion of schoolwork in a very short time…so just love them and build relationship with them.

  6. Would it be possible to use an unschool or “light” method of homeschooling with an older adopted child if you happen to live in one of the states with a high level of state regulation?

  7. Mel,

    Great question. I’m hoping others will chime in with specific experience in more regulated states, but I suspect you could very legitimately describe hours spent conversing as English, story time as literature, making cookies as math/home ec, walking and biking as PE, etc. I know from talking to friends that ESL classes in schools have fairly modest goals for new immigrants, with no homework, etc.

    • I know this post is about homeschooling, but since ESL classes came up, I thought I would post a comment. Our local public school is GREAT for ESL kids and our recently adopted son (Jan 2011) is in 2nd grade, but knows no English whatsoever and cannot do spelling, reading, math, etc. So he spends most of his day with the kindergarten reading ESL class and that is right where he needs to be. There is no homework or testing requirements for ESL in our district (probably most areas this is true). If he is progressing, then he moves forward in grade level with the rest of his class. We supplement at home with a sibling helping him learn alphabet flashcards and interactive learning puzzles for colors, shapes, animals, numbers, etc.

  8. Shelly Roberts says:

    Quick note on Saxon and TT. We switched from Saxon to TT in High school because I wanted to be sure we had the back-up of instruction on individual problems. Our oldest used it up through Geometry (we did not do Pre-Calculus). Our other guys will do the same. We’ve been very pleased.

    Mary … what did you use in the early elementary grades? I’m trying to find something for 1-3rd grade. I either need to re-purchase Saxon for the littles or do something different.

    I’ve seen a lot of adoptive families homeschool … even if only for a year or two and make WONDERFUL strides in the transitioning into family. I think it offers SO many opportunities that you just wouldn’t get if you weren’t with them all day.

    Love the post, Mary!! 🙂

  9. afamilieslove says:

    SO, we do unschool to a certain degree, at least in practical curriculum terms. Truly we use the Charlotte Mason method though, and for new English speakers I highly recommend it, just google Charlotte mason, but in a nut shell it is using reading, of a variety of good, classic sources, to teach grammar, proper sentence structure, word use, vocab etc, to understand the world around you. It incorporates nature study, and learning math skills, in every day life. We do have to use reporting emthods, so we kind of have to figure out what to call some of the things we do, like taking a walk, we explore the woods, look for bugs, discuss the clouds and weather, all earth science. Math is easy try cooking, counting skips in jump rope, hopscotch, etc, also good counting books, and calendar use counts as math. Reading, good books only are key to CM though, things like Beatrix potter, and Charlotte’s web, the Bible, Eric Carle(good for feelings, colors, items, etc) also a simple kids dictionary with help looking up words, this counts as english. We find that for new english learners sign language is also huge, our son could not speak when he came home, age 2.5, due to CP and damage to his left brain, so sign language really helped get across ideas that he could not verbalize, or remember the correct words for, it also counts as a new language too, so 1 more language arts goal. By discussing your family and extended family, and where you live you cover hisroty and and Social studies for the younger grades.
    CM allows you to use the things and life you have to teach your children, and be able to legally homeschool they help you figure out how to report it, check it out, it is great, and virtually structureless, always good for newly arrived kids who spin from one activity to another.

  10. We have four older children from Russia and they definitely need time to adjust before learning deep concepts. But the sense that we have to play catch-up for years of no schooling is very real. So we teach in Russian and in English, rinse, repeat. Most days, it works….

  11. Elisabeth says:

    I adopted my oldest son at 7 from Russia. I started him in school right away. What a giant mistake! I wish I had taken an year off and just played with him and loved him. I was afraid he was already “behind.” We spent a year struggling before I laid off. Interestingly, in about the last year he has leapt about 3 years in school work. Kids can learn a lot and fast when they are older! We wasted a lot of time and energy starting before he was calm and ready. He is doing GREAT now, but I think everything would have gone more smoothly and better in the long run if I had known at the time just to care and attend to him as much as I would an infant. I hope other families will heed Mary’s wise advice to focus on play and relationships and life.