I’ll be honest with you—early childhood education was not my major in college, and I have never worked for a primary school. And that’s exactly why I’m the perfect one to write this post.

I used to work as an English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor, so I thought I knew a thing or two about teaching. My students regularly progressed and even requested that I progress with them to continue teaching them higher courses. So when my wife and I, parents of one, said yes we would love to babysit ten children, eight of whom homeschooled, we thought we had it covered.

The children are ages 5, 7, 9, 9 (not twins), 10, 10, 10 (not triplets), and 13. This is the five-year old’s first year of school, and the seven-year old reads like it is his first year, too. Brianna struggled more with reading comprehension than I have ever seen. Charlie didn’t get math to save his life. Carson had no interest in learning at all, and Dax fell asleep three times in one week trying to do his history homework. We had a great open source LMS where we could look at journals and watch their progress, but getting them to write came with its own difficulties.

The problem was not homeschooling. The model was better than my (backwoods Tennessee) public education. My wife and I realized at about a week into our three-week incarceration that we were teaching lessons rather than teaching children.

So we got creative—because creativity is the only option available when you teach a kindergartener at the same time as a middle school student. I have been involved in one way or another in the education field for some time, so I took a page from the Common Core Standards. Our vocabulary lessons turned theme-based: if it was biology, then Amy, age five, learned animal names. Preston, age 13, learned about mitochondria and zygotes. Same material, deeper understanding.

Then we tried integrated curriculum. Our writing assignments comprised the vocabulary, and the kids were free to be as creative or academic as they chose to be. Amy could practice her handwriting, and Carson could try his hand at short stories. Math followed, and Amy counted elephant herds and goose gaggles (while Charlie taught her about murders of crows . . . thanks, buddy), and Harley worked algebra into the mix.

That’s when we learned how to help kids learn. “Teaching,” in the form of giving assignments and grading homework, was not getting Amy excited about learning. When we finally found a method to encourage learning in a five-year old, we inadvertently found a method that worked for the other seven kids—and they loved it.

What have been some of your experiences teaching young children? Our own little boy will be big soon enough, and we’d love to hear your feedback. Let us know in the comments!

Jared Heath is a freelance writer and content strategist. He loves his wife, his writing, and his chances to learn. He writes about education, business, and marketing.

Photo by Eastop