Have you seen the discussions in homeschool groups about how you need to find “rigorous programs” for your child?  Have you fallen into the trap of worrying that your curriculum choice is a bad one because it is just too easy or fun? Have you worried your child will fail in life because you didn’t teach a rigorous program?  I’m here to tell you not to worry. 

Let’s go look at what rigorous means in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary for a moment, to see if this is something we want in our homeschool. 

Definition of rigorous

1: Manifesting, exercising, or favoring rigor; very strict

2: Marked by extremes of temperature or climate; hash, severe

3: Scrupulously accurate; precise

Okay, I think we can throw out the part about extreme temperatures, that doesn’t seem relevant. We aren’t training the kids for the Iditarod, or at least I’m not.  

So, let’s look at the rest of this as though we were hiring a teacher for our child. The teacher would be very strict, harsh, severe, and precise. Does that sound like a class you want to take?  Me neither. So, why do homeschoolers get so excited about rigor?  Is it ever good? 

When to worry about rigor

First of all, let me just tell you that if you ever say the phrase “rigorous kindergarten” near me, prepare for a lecture. Every bit of research says that children learn best through play. And play is never referred to as “rigorous”. For some reason, conventional wisdom seems to imply that once kids are 6 or 7 or 8-years-old the need for play ends. But it doesn’t. The benefits of a playful, fun and relaxed education outweigh rigor in elementary school every time. 

It is ideal if your child can learn to read, write, and do basic math during elementary school. But how hard they work at those skills as an 8 or 10-year-old won’t have an impact on how well they do them as adults. Learning those skills at their own pace is the best way for your child to develop long-lasting skills. Learning to write a five-paragraph essay at 9 won’t give your child a jump start on their college thesis. And it may actually make them less interested in learning to write a great paper when they are older.

Is middle school the right time for rigor? The truth is that it depends. For some students, a rigorous program in an area of interest is a challenge they want for themselves. The desire could be in a traditionally academic area like math or science, but it can also be in ballet or music. The important part here is that the student wants it. When you put a child who wants to do the work into a rigorous program, they can excel. However, when you force a student with a casual interest into the same program, it can squash their desire to learn, create resentment, and even cause lasting damage to their education as they avoid the topic in the future.

High School

But what about high school? Shouldn’t it be rigorous? No, not necessarily. If you have a highly driven child who wants an Ivy League education, then sure, go for a rigorous program. However, if your student is a regular kid, or has learning challenges, there really isn’t a reason to force them through something labeled “rigorous.”

Brick and mortar schools are pushing students to take more and more Advanced Placement (AP) and Honors classes. And the stress is burning out teenagers by the time they graduate high school! There is no reason for us to replicate that in homeschooling. 

Yes, I do think that you should teach your high school student Language Arts, Math, History, and Science. But how rigorous those courses need to be depends on your student. Courses labeled “rigorous” often require students to write longer papers or absorb information at a  faster rate. For students with ADHD, or many other learning challenges, this doesn’t make the course better. It only makes it more difficult. More difficulty doesn’t necessarily lead to deeper learning or more success. Classes like Foreign Language, for example, can be fun and engaging without being strict and challenging. Learning about culture, history, and food makes a class more engaging than just conjugating verb tenses.

Find The Balance That Works For You

In any subject, learning the subject matter needs to be prioritized over how very challenging the class is.  A class listed as a rigorous biology class may have your student write a paper about metamorphosis where an experienced-based class could have them raising butterflies. In the long run, will the student who wrote the paper know more than the one who raised the butterflies? It is hard to say, but one of those definitely sounds like more fun and that it would make a longer-lasting impression.

The beauty of homeschooling is that you can tailor your student’s education to meet their needs. You don’t need to feel bad if your student isn’t the kind to take Honors English or AP Calculus. Not everyone does. If your student wants to go farther as an adult, they can take college classes to get where they need to go. Community College is a great place to catch up and prepare for a four-year degree if that is what they want. 

About the Author

Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.

1 thought on “The Myth of a Rigorous Education”

  1. I could not agree with you more. I went to an all-girls private school. ‘Rigorous’ was an understatement. By the second semester of junior year, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, physical and mental collapse. Despite being staunchly anti-drug and alcohol, I turned to stimulants for the sole purpose of being able to stay up and do more work.

    Come college, I was not only burnt-out but addicted to speed. I know this is an extreme example- but this sort of thing happens more often than you would think. I would never want another teen to go through what I did. Young people of the world, it’s okay to take it easy with your education and focus on mental health and self-care!

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