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Why Homeschooling Works: An Interview with Dr. Debra Bell

July 25–29, 2016   |   Vol. 127, Programs 56–60
Previously aired:   July 6–10, 2015   |   Vol. 123, Programs 61–65

Homeschooling is a diverse category, and there are as many different methods as there are homeschoolers. So what are the key components of a successful homeschool education? To find out, join Dr. Debra Bell on today’s Homeschool Heartbeat.

“I believe if we built a school from the ground up, based upon what the research says about how kids learn best, we’d build a home.”—Dr. Debra Bell

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What makes homeschooling work so well for so many people? Hear from author and former homeschool mom Dr. Debra Bell today on Homeschool Heartbeat, as she joins Mike Farris to discuss the secret to successful homeschooling.

Mike Farris: I’m joined today by my friend Debra Bell. She’s a former homeschool mom—her kids all grew up, that’s why she’s former—and she is a widely published author and a wonderful speaker. Debra, welcome to the program.

Dr. Bell: Well, thanks Mike, I’m glad to be here.


Why homeschooling works [0:30]

Mike: You’ve researched why and how homeschooling works. What got you interested in this subject?

Dr. Bell: Well first, I’m a credentialed professional educator and I’ve always been fascinated about how we learn, how kids learn best. But my own homeschooled experience as well as observing the outcomes in others around led me to researching homeschooling. I think homeschoolers have stumbled up some answers that are relevant to the larger educational community.

Mike: So without further ado, tell us: why does homeschooling work?

Dr. Bell: Well, I think we’re not designed to be mass educated; we’re built by God for individualized instruction. Homeschooling affords the most opportunity for an optimal learning environment. We know from the research that the best conditions for cognitive development include opportunities for choice, and participation in decision-making; opportunities to be successful; and opportunities for warm supportive relationships. I believe if we build a school from the ground up, based on what the research says about how kids learn best, we’d build a home.


Support your learner [1:32]

Mike: Debra, what are the essential parts of a good homeschooling program?

Dr. Bell: First, I think it’s a process, a good homeschooling program evolves over time. I think parents need to embrace that, enjoy that. Experience produces expertise. So tell your kids, “We are learning how to learn together.” Secondly, I think a good homeschool is developmentally appropriate. Schools put kids on an artificial time table because they’re forced to mass educate. Your kids’ cognitive development is as varied as his or her physical development. Adopt a program to fit the kid. Finally, kids have to have opportunities to participate in decision-making, be successful and supported by warm, enduring, encouraging relationships.

Mike: How does all this work together to make homeschooling successful? Could you give me some examples?

Dr. Bell: Give your first and second grader three possible books to read and let him or her choose. Ask your fourth or fifth grader what she’s interested in learning about in science and pursue that. In terms of success this is where developmentally appropriate comes in. The work you ask your children to do should be optimally challenging: not too easy, and also not too hard. They need to break a sweat to make cognitive gains. Finally, keep your family culture warm, accepting, and supportive.


The joy of learning [2:45]

Mike: Other than the time you’ve spent in Target parking lots, what got you interested in helping homeschoolers with curriculum?

Dr. Bell: I’ve taught kids to write and read and love the creative process for more than thirty years. Writing a complete language arts program is the best way to capture and synthesize all that life experience. I also have a lot of passion and vision for what homeschooling can be, Mike. I believe God wants us to love to learn, it should be a lifelong source of pleasure and purpose, homeschooling should be a joy, and I pray my curriculum will help homeschoolers celebrate the incredible gift of language God has given us and bring some joy to the process of learning to read and write for the kids who use it.

Mike: What do you personally enjoy about your work?

Dr. Bell: The creative process, the outlet for my passion. Frankly, I didn’t know who I was when I finished homeschooling my kids. I’m so grateful God opened new doors for me to continue to serve the homeschool community. I love kids and I love the families I get to work with.

Mike: And Debra, you are really good at it. I was at a homeschool meeting this last week and people were thanking me for my service in homeschooling, and I told them, look it, I should be the one thanking you because I have had the privilege of doing something I truly love. Whether it’s in your job or whether it’s in learning, loving what you are doing is essential to success. So I’m right there with you, Debra. To all homeschoolers: I’m grateful you’ve given me the opportunity to serve you all these years.


Shifting gears for high school [4:07]

Mike: Debra, how does homeschooling change as students reach high school age?

Dr. Bell: Mike, the elementary years are all about broad exposure to experience and ideas. Our goal is to bring to the surface the gifts and talents God has uniquely graced each of our kids with, these gifts and talents are clues to their future calling. Our sole academic goal in high school should be to position our kids for what comes next, what skills and knowledge are necessary to step through the next door of opportunity. A high school program should focus on those gifts and talents currently identified; we will allocate more time to these areas and will have to steal time from other worthwhile but not essential opportunities and subjects.

Mike: Are there any common problems that arise—and do you have advice for fixing them?

Dr. Bell: High school unfortunately coincides with adolescence; teens are straining towards adulthood. This is a God-ordained process, but they don’t know how to navigate these changes graciously or gracefully because they have no prior experience with any of this. We parents (myself included) often overreact and complicate the process. We need to bring words of faith and encouragement to the situation. Be calm. Celebrate the adult your teenager is becoming, no matter how clumsily they may go about it.


Fine-tuning your homeschool program [5:22]

Mike: Debra, how can parents use the ideas that you’ve talked about this week to fine-tune their homeschooling programs?

Dr. Bell: I suggest sitting down with each child and ask, “What do you enjoy most about our homeschool program and what would you like to see changed?” Accommodate what you can. Ask the Lord together to open doors of opportunity. I guarantee these small steps of involving your children will energize them.

Then ask the Lord to show you each child’s individual differences. How has God made him or her unique? God loves diversity; it’s obvious in creation. So how can you adapt your program to strengthen your child’s weaknesses and optimize his or her strengths? Small changes can turn into big gains.

Finally, make sure you keep your family culture warm and supportive and relationships intact, not just between you and each child but among siblings as well. I found I had to rely on the Lord to accomplish this. Homeschooling does not naturally bring out the best in us. It is going to highlight our weaknesses and imperfections. Acknowledge this to your kids. Don’t try to pretend it ain’t so. Ask them to pray for you to be successful and grace-filled as you teach them. Humility is a powerful remedy for most of our failures.

Mike: Debra, thank you so much for your good work for many years and for spending this week with us. I’m Mike Farris.

Debra BellBell

Debra Bell is the best-selling author of the award-winning Ultimate Guide to HomeschoolingUltimate Guide to Homeschooling Teens and the Ultimate Planners for moms, teens and students (Apologia Press). A former high school and college English teacher, Debra and her husband Kermit home educated their four kids K-12; all of whom are now married and college graduates. Her articles on homeschooling have been published in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, Homeschooling Today, The Teaching Home and Thriving Families Magazine. She has been a keynote or featured speaker at numerous international and national venues for more than twenty years.

Debra holds a B.S. in communications education, an M.A. in English and a Ph.D. in educational psychology from Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. While at Temple, she held a teaching assistantship in the College of Education. Her research interests include identifying why, how and when homeschooling works; and she looks forward to using her training to better serve the homeschool community well into the future.

During her homeschooling years, Debra helped to found and lead three homeschool co-ops which continue today (one for elementary, one for high school, and one for drama). She and her husband, Kermit, also founded Susquehanna Valley Pregnancy Services, a major non-profit ministry serving women unprepared for pregnancy throughout South-Central Pennsylvania.

Today, Debra is executive director and lead teacher for Aim Academywhich provides online college prep courses for 7th-12th. She is also serving on the board of the 2016 Global Home Education Conference(GHEC) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. More information about her online classes, books, forthcoming curriculum and speaking schedule can be found at DebraBell.com.

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