Works for Me: Put up your flag

This post was originally posted in January 2008.


This school year I have 5 kids in elementary school. This makes for some crazy mornings of homeschooling. I’ve learned to stagger the subjects so that no more than 2 kids are doing math at any one time, since math requires lots of mom-help. But I’ve been frustrated with the way kids will badger me with constant requests for help, interrupting me while I am helping another child.

Finally I decided to make sure that each child had at least 3 possible subjects lined up in front of him. For example, alongside the open math book, let’s put the handwriting book and the reading book. I told my kids that if they were stuck on math, they were NOT to interrupt or sit waving their hand frantically, but instead
1. Skim the math lesson for other problems they can do unassisted
2. Do their handwriting assignment for the day
3. Get a jump start on their required 1/2 hour of independent reading each day.

To top off this plan, I made the kids flags. Each flag is just a little paper rectangle taped to a wooden skewer. Because I wanted the flags to be free-standing (leaving the kids’ hands free to keep working!) I stuck the point end of each skewer into a tub of playdough, right through the lid of the tub. This makes the flags stand up nicely. I made four, labelled 1 through 4.

During school time I set the flags in the center of the table where four of my kids work. If a kid gets stuck on an assignment while I am occupied, he takes the #1 flag. The second kid gets #2, and so forth. That way when I look up from helping one kid, I can tell who to go talk with next.

It may sound a little impersonal to tell your kid to take a number. But my kids really like the system because they know whose turn is next. Once they’ve grabbed their flag, they can go back to working on another math problem, or begin another assignment. I think this has really helped them use their time more efficiently. Often I find it encourages a few more seconds of thought about the problem too. Sometimes my kids give up too soon if I seem *too* available, ya know, when with just a little more thought they could come up with the answer on their own. This has made our mornings much quieter and less distracting.

I realize that not nearly everyone is homeschooling or dealing with the numbers of kids that I am. But I think that even a mom doing homework with 3 kids in the evenings might find some of these tips helpful.

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  1. awesome. I don’t have this problem yet, since my little two are too little for “school” so far… but I am soooo saving this. *S* Great idea!

  2. Although I am not a homeschooler mom, that image of the kids ‘waving their hand frantically’ certainly brought back funny memories of my schooling. 😉

  3. Hee hee. I only have ONE child (well, for a few more months anyway) and she’s not old enough for homeschool yet, but there are still times I wish I could implement a “take a number” system for her! 🙂 Think I’d have to use something other than playdough for the base though or we’d have a big mess on our hands. Smart idea as always!

  4. What a great idea!! My oldest is in Kindergarten but I will have 4 in elementary at the same time by the time they get that old!

  5. I’ve only got two, and there are days when even just those two need to “take a number”! I like it!

    I can also see where the numbered-turn concept cuts down on time spent – no arguing about whose turn it is because you don’t remember who spoke up in which order.

  6. What a great idea!! I love it!

  7. Love it!!! Homeschooling five between 8 and 13, we have this issue a lot and it is very difficult! You have a fabulous idea! I know that I will be putting it into effect today! I think it may help us a great deal! Plus, I never remember who spoke up first!

  8. Love it! My oldest is the only one homeschooling but I will have more soon! I will put this one in my memory bank.

  9. That’s a great idea! I’m always telling my kids “How many mothers are there? How many children are there? Get in line.”

  10. what material do you use for homeschooling? I am about to start next year and hve just begun looking. I am really interested in knowing my kids’ learning styles…any info on this? THanks! you can email me (if you get a chance) at


  11. Nice system! I wondered how you handled that.

  12. These are great suggestions. I don’t know how you do it! I can’t imagine, but it sounds like you have a good system down.

  13. EXCELLENT idea!

  14. I don’t think it is “impersonal” at all, but a great idea. Now you don’t have to worry about who was “first” in line for your attention. I give you kudos for the idea.

  15. Oh, I’m so glad that you shared this. Homeschooling 3 and I’m always trying to think up better ways to do things. Thanks for thinking up one for me and sharing it. I’m going to implement this TO-DAY! Thanks.

  16. I run into this issue and think this is a great solution! Thank you for sharing it!


  17. i wonder if this could work for just one kid. put flag up when you need help… and when mommy is done with current task, she’ll be right there

  18. I’m wondering if I can give my kids numbers for dinner – they all seem to want seconds/dessert/something cut at the same time! 🙂

  19. I love it! That’s the hardest part (for me) of homeschooling my crew. Everyone always seems to need help, all at the same time, and I can never seem to remember who I said I would help next. Woe to me if I let child jump in line…I may try this.

  20. I am totally stealing this idea for Girl Guides. You rock!

  21. Well done for this great idea. My daughter’s teacher used this method last year and I think it really helped the children who found it hard to ask for help too.

  22. Cuuuute idea, Mary! TFS!

  23. That’s a great idea!

  24. Brilliant, just brilliant! This kind of situation and the stress that it caused in me is exactly why I quit hsing! If I had been able to come up with more creative solutions instead of researching good school options, we would probably still be hsing today– keep up the good work, stay the course, fight the good fight… and all of that. I love your take a number system– it fans a flame in the heart of a mom of many!!

  25. Thank you!! I have 7 kids and homeschool 4 of them… I will make a few “sets”… I’m sure I will have flags all over the house, but I love the idea. Thank you.

  26. That is fantastic! I have heard a similar idea using cards that you where on your clothes or put near your books (Managers of Their Chores) but the flag idea is so very visual. I might have to use it. Even my preschooler (who is not formally preschooling) could use it when he needs to interrupt.

  27. My kids just write their questions on paper airplanes and bombard me with me.
    Works for them!
    (Drives me crazy!)

  28. Mary, I love this idea. This is a pet peeve of mine…the constant interruptions of “Mom! I don’t get this!”, while working with another child. I think my kids just might see some flags on our school table come Monday morning! Patty

  29. It’s seems these days we spend half our lives in a queue or taking a number, so you were just preparing them for real life as you do with everything else. You weren’t being impersonal, just teaching life skills, where things are increasingly… impersonal. 🙂

  30. I have four, two of home school age, the others coming to that soon! I often will say “take a number,” and of course had to explain it to them. Now…perhaps…I really will make them take a number!

  31. What a great idea! I homeschool my five kids and have been using this system since I read it the first time you posted it. It has really helped my sanity!!! The other thing it does is make my kids more independent. Many times, instead of grabbing a flag, my kids will stop and think for a minute and solve the problem on their own instead of waiting for me. Thanks for a great post!

  32. Same here . . . handwriting and independent reading are my back-up plans. As is journaling.
    Love the flags idea.

  33. laura h. says:

    Your flag idea is one of the best I have heard for someone who homeschools multiple children. The constant asking for help was one of the most frustrating parts of my day when I homeschooled. There was just one teacher and eight children and always felt like they were bombarding me at all times, which wasn’t true–just felt like it.
    I also think this is an idea I will bring up for my daughter’s public school teacher. For how often I volunteer at the school, the constant hand waving is still one of the most frustrating things to see because the child stops working until the teacher comes to help. With a visual, like the flag, for each child to have they could place on their desk and the teacher would know they need help with something. Don’t need the number system here-just the acknowledgement that they need help. But there would be no time wasted because the student could continue to work until the teacher comes to their desk.

  34. I love both the idea of the flags and of having “back up” work.

  35. fantastic idea

  36. What you are teaching them will help them in the work force. You would not believe the number of young kids fresh out of college that get stuck on one issue and will not/can not move on to something else until the person they need to ask the question to is available. Bravo! Love the number idea that way they will not fuss and say it’s my turn. You saved yourself a lot of headaches.