Stepping Outside the Grade-Level Box

Written by contributor Sarah Small of SmallWorld at Home

A note from Jamie: As we begin to contemplate and plan for fall, it’s good to keep in mind that we’re not bound by grade levels like traditional schools are! Enjoy this repost from Sarah, which originally published on July 1, 2011.

Ask a homeschooled kid the innocuous “What grade are you in?” and you’ll often get a furrowed brow and an answer with a question mark at the end.


This response can be alarming to grandparents, non-homeschooling friends, and the cashier at Walmart. Their raised eyebrows ask, “He doesn’t know what grade he’s in?”

Well, no. Not exactly. That hallmark of traditional schooling—the passing from grade to grade—isn’t of utmost importance in homeschooling. The age/grade correlation just isn’t necessarily present.

If your nine-year-old is reading at a post-college level, does that make him 23? Who decided, after all, that picture books are for preK-3rd grade, that pre-algebra is done in middle school, and that high school takes four years?

Who came up with all this stuff? I don’t know the answer to that.

What I do know is that homeschooling allows us to provide learning opportunities for our children at their own pace.

This might mean that:


  • your nine-year-old is reading at a 10th-grade level but has the fine motor skills of a kindergartener;
  • or your 13-year-old daughter writes astounding stories but still doesn’t know all her multiplication facts;
  • or your son finished high school at 16, but your daughter plans to take a leisurely five years and graduate at 19.

This can be tough for those of us who went through the traditional education system. By nature most homeschooling parents are outside-the-box thinkers, but we still tend to second-guess our choices every now and then, as if some public school administrator is peering over our shoulders and wagging his finger at us.

I balk when I hear parents ask “Where can I find out where my child should be for his grade level?”

The beauty of homeschooling is that it just doesn’t matter. Our kids don’t have to be boxed into a grade.

I remember a story my brother told me once about his daughter, then in first grade in public school. The teacher called him and his wife in for a conference. “I need you to stop teaching her things at home,” she said to them. “She is reading too far ahead and doing math that we don’t learn until the third grade.” My brother and his wife explained that they weren’t teaching her at home, but that they weren’t going to stop her from figuring things out on her own.
Shoe Tying

Last year I made the decision to skip over the next math textbook for my son. I compared the two consecutive years and realized that few new concepts were introduced in the 4th grade book. The question for this particular child became: Why spend an entire year doing the same old thing? We moved into and through the 5th grade book easily, and then I looked at the 6th grade book and saw a whole year of the same old thing, again. But skipping another book would mean going into pre-algebra.

Somehow I couldn’t wrap my brain around my 10-year-old doing pre-algebra already, especially since my 13-year-old just finished the curriculum. But, well, he can. “Move him up,” my husband said simply and sensibly.

My youngest guy likes math. He’s excited about it, figures it out quickly, and is thrilled to be moving on to pre-algebra. On the other hand, he still reverses the letters “b” and “d” every now and then, and he’s never written more than a paragraph on his own.

Is he in seventh grade or second grade?

Grade levels are necessary for the structure of traditional school, certainly, and they are generally necessary for things like clubs, sports, camps, and church activities. I think we should all teach our kids a basic grade-level answer (i.e., “I’m in fourth grade”), without feeling the need to explain to the general public that she’s doing 7th grade math, 5th grade science, and reading at a 9th grade level. But in our own homes, shedding our mental checklist of “what your child should know in each grade” can be liberating—and tremendously beneficial to our kids.

Homeschooling is all about finding the heartbeat of your family and following that pace—not your neighbor’s, not your best homeschooling buddy’s, and not the grade level expectations for your child’s age.

What’s your philosophy on grades? What do your kids say when asked what grades they are in?

About SarahS

Sarah has graduated one child from homeschooling and is happy to have miles left on the journey with her 11 and 15 year old children. With a master’s degree in English/creative writing, Sarah enjoys teaching writing and literature classes at her co-op and blogs about learning at SmallWorld at Home.


  1. I could teach my kids to answer with the age-associated grade, but I choose not to. Similarly, when they ask at the McDonald’s drive thru if the happy meal is for a girl or a boy, I could say “boy” and be done with it… but it’s my daughter who wants the LEGO toy. In that case, I say “We would like the LEGO toy please”… I don’t have to buy into their arbitrary paradigm of what gender should play with what toy. Some say it’s no big deal; I disagree. Not a hill I’m gonna die on, but not something I will glibly participate in either.

    With grades, we find 90% of the time people who ask are really asking the equivalent of how old the child is. My kids dodge the question by answering with their age. If the person is persistent, they say “We homeschool. I’m ungraded elementary.” (True.) If the person wants to get all up in it, I’m more than happy to explain the whole situation if they’re genuinely curious – or, now I can just link them to this excellent article! But I don’t buy into “grade levels” at all.

  2. Excellent article….wish all homechoolers could grasp this! I will be linking to this one!

  3. Thanks for this article. Our family is getting ready to start this journey and I know there will be multiple questions and furrowed brows. Your words definitely gave me a boost of confidence right when I needed it most. :)

  4. This post reaffirms what I knew. I thank you!
    Kelly K
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  5. Gwen L. says:

    Thank you for this encouragement. I was struggling this year with my son who is a young 7 about to be 8. I have always purchased curriculum that gives a general grade and an age level. Iam going to continue the “1st “grade curriculum in some things like reading and start on the “2nd” grade stuff for everything else. I was feeling like I had failed him but God’s timing is right and I know I am doing what is best for my child. So we say he is 2nd grade for church sunday school etc.

  6. I agree so much, I was JUST telling someone not to worry about the grade level, make sure the basics are covered and throw at them anything else they can take. Where they need help, help them, where they can drive on their own, give em the wheel. :) Thanks for this!

  7. Joanne Woods says:

    Your article made me laugh – only because I can so relate. My kids always answer, after what seems like a long pause, and then with a question mark on the end. OR, when they were even younger, they would look up at me and ask me, as I’m sitting there trying to actually figure it out. Sometimes I just say, just to be silly, do you want to know technically what grade they are in or what grade level they are doing? hehe. This can get you some strange looks. I’ve done the age answer, but that doesn’t always satisfy – like it really matters! Love your article!!! =) Love thinking outside the box!

  8. We are about to start our second year of homeschooling and since the beginning have been struggling w/this question. It never occurred to me not to worry about it. Thanks for the reminder that we no longer have to live in the box that we were trying to get rid of in the first place! That’s why we left the ps system!!

  9. Aha! I needed to read this today. This is SO much of why we homeschool but I have been falling into the comparison trap over this summer. And as I was reading this I was thinking to myself, “boy, this is a great article”. Then I saw who it was written by and then it all made sense! Thanks, Sarah. Great writing and great encouragement as always.
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  10. Wonderful article! Thanks for explaining this so well. When people ask them about their “grade level,” my homeschooled kids usually answer, “If I went to school, I’d probably be in X grade, but we homeschool, so it doens’t matter.”

  11. Wow. This article really resonated with me.

    It’s always bothered me that we as humans (or at the very least Americans) are so obsessed with fitting everything into little boxes that we forget that the children we are cramming into said boxes are people, too. From birth, children are given the gift of limitless potential, and all “grades” do is snatch it back by making them fit a common mold made to fit the lowest common denominator, and if they don’t fit in, they’re “special”, or “slow”, to say nothing of public-schoolers.

    And why? Because it’s “the way it’s always been done.”

    This is a very eye-opening article, one that I hope not just home-schoolers, but parents and educators across the country can read, appreciate, and learn something from. As a public school graduate who wants to home-school my own children one day, it’s more than food for thought. We shape our children with every action we make whether we realize it or not, and no matter what we do, they’ll never conform to our molds. They want so badly to be their own person, but how can they when we thwart their every efforts by making them instead to be “ideal”?

    Bravissimo, maestra. Bravissimo.

  12. About 20 years ago, I did part of my student teaching in a British primary school in London. It was interesting to compare how different it was compared to the American ways of schooling. One of the big differences was that there were no “grades” at all. Kids were divided solely by age with a range of ages in each room : 4-5 and 5-6-year-olds (a.k.a. “infants”), and 6-7, 7-8, 8-9, and 9-10-year-olds. If only schools here were like that, then that would be a question that would never even come up!

    What grade a child is in, when the question isn’t what grade in this school is he in, is really nothing more than a vague way of asking how old he is. After all, different schools can teach all sorts of different things in different grades anyway (especially when standardized testing isn’t required). So when you say a child is in a particular grade, and you don’t know the particular school’s curriculum for that grade, it tells you absolutely nothing except the child’s approximate age! So when a homeschooler says what grade he’s in based only on his age and not the level of schoolwork he’s doing, it’s just as good a reply as a child in school saying what grade he is in.

    Saying what grade a child is in is nothing more than the American way of saying about how old a child is, in the context of his education.

  13. Mrs Lyons says:

    Wonderful article! My husband and I refer to how we educate as “outside of the box”. As our kids were growing up, often when we ran errands there was some variation of the question, “What grade are you in?” or “Why aren’t you in school?” Sometimes this has been uncomfortable. But for the most part our response of, “We are homeschoolers, and we don’t set grades,” is enough. My teenage son, who is 14, and very shy, never knows what to answer as he meets more public school kids. I suggested to him that he just answers that he does “some high school stuff” and is taking some college math classes in the fall. (He wanted a response that sounded aloof enough to keep the additional questions at bay.) That usually stops the questions, and the response back has been, “Cool.” (It’s hard enough being a shy 14 year old, 6 foot guy.) I just wish the society was more accepting of people who do not live in the box, and would instruct their children the same. But I understand that is unlikely to ever be the case.

  14. I agree with you completely, but I have found it difficult to live in a world that bases so much on what grade your child is in. Our church drives me crazy with it!! Sunday school classes are set by grade, and while I have my 5 1/2 year old registered as 1st grade b/c she did “Kindergarten” at 4 1/2, I never asked them to move her when she turned 5 to 1st grade Sunday school. The classes were by age up til age 5; then they started segregating them by “grades”. The SS teachers call them Kindergarteners and make a big deal about them being in Kindergarten. And in AWANA, they even make the kids sit in rows by GRADE!!!! I don’t want my children put into categories like that. I’ve heard some homeschool children saying things like “I’m in 4th grade doing 5th grade work but 4th grade math”, for example. It’s not clear cut when you homeschool, so why bother with trying to make the kids fit into institutional categories? But since most of the kids in this country attend institutional schools, that’s the way other people think. It’s frustrating.
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  15. This has been such a major issue for me as a homeschooler that I’ve applied to the non-homeschooled kids I know too. I do my best to never ask “what grade are you in” but only ask “how old are you?” And I try not to ask “how’s school”, but I ask about what sorts of things they like to do. We’ve gotten so hobbled in our communication with children, as we are so disconnected from them, that finding what ‘box’ they it in with schooling is about the only means we have of relating to them!

    The only times I find myself honestly asking ‘what grade are you in’ are when it’s an older teenager. In those cases, I’m wondering how close they are to graduating. It also matters because kids in grade 12 are often much more concerned with exams and university preparation and have less time and resources available for other activities. Asking their age is less helpful for this kind of conversation because some kids graduate at barely 17 and others are nearly 19. Often I already know their age too heh!!! At this age they’re often eager to talk about ‘the real world’ and what lies beyond after public school, so the ‘how much time they have left’ is more relevant than asking an 8yo if they’re in grade 3 or 4 this year…
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  16. Oh and my ‘pat’ answer for when we’re asked that question is usually “well he’s 13, so if he were in school, they’d put him in grade 8. But that’s one of the beauties of homeschooling… we just work at whatever level he’s at.” Which usually then elicits a response of “oh of course! That’s so wonderful to be able to do that, isn’t it?”
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  17. Well said! Goals for the year for each child are all the checklists that we need. :)
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  18. commenting on the second time this post was published…

    My kids always look at me a bit confused when someone asks them what grade they’re in. I try to remember to tell them but it means nothing to us so they forget easily. (as with all these things that mean nothing to a person)

    I prefer to ask other children how old they are, what they like to do, etc… to understand who they are. Not “What grade are you in?”. I understand that our society likes to box people but I don’t like to.
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  19. I had to laugh on this one. My husband and I had a mock disagreement about this very topic.

    Him: So the kids are in 6th, 4th, and 2nd this year?
    Me: Um, not really.
    Him: No, they are.
    Me. No, not really.
    Him: But they had to take those tests. (Standardized tests required by our state.)
    Me: So?

    I hate being boxed in when my kids are clearly all over the place in skill level and readiness. LOL I typically tell people that my kids are in an “ish” grade–as in 6thish or 4thish.
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  20. Mayra Rodriguez says:

    I love this post and it came when I neede the most. I was deciding between keeping my boys doing the same History curriculum of 3rd grade or keeping them separate with the curriculum of their ‘corresponding grade’. I think I am going to keep them together to study it as a family!

    Decisions, decisions, decisions that sometimes we take based on the opinions of others not based on our needs. Txs!
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  21. My oldest knows his grade that corresponds to the grade his government school peers are in. As for the actual grade level material we use……it doesn’t really matter. As long as they are learning new things and are engaged in the material I will use whatever works. There are definitely more important things to worry about in our children’s lives other than how the government would classify them based soley on their “date of manufacture”.

  22. I loved this so much ! I was just talking to someone yesterday about my sons schooling. They were asking me if I was starting K5–I told them we would be learning a lot this year, but that we weren’t calling it K5. As someone just starting out on homeschooling this is so encouraging!
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  23. We have close ties with our local school (I sub. teach there) so my boys know their grades. I just realized, though, that none of our work has grade levels on it. Also, my older finds schoolwork more challenging and my younger is whipping through…they may be doing ALL the same work by this time next year! Anyway, I try not to get too bent out of shape about it, since very few understand homeschooling anyway, and it’s not the only way that we are different than the rest of society, either!

  24. My daughter just looks blankly at people, even though I’ve prepped her with what to answer. Like you have described, she is at many grade levels, mostly a few above where she “should” be according to the school system.

  25. And an update one year later: doing pre-algebra with my 10-11 year old worked GREAT!! I am so glad that we did it that way rather than holding him back because he’s too “young” for pre-algebra!
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  26. I feel much better now about the fact none of my children knew what grade they were in when asked the other day :) Thank you
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  27. Grade levels are only what we make of them. If we’re more relaxed in our approach to say “my child is fifth grade” although we know he might be doing 2nd grade math or reading on a 9th grade level, it leaves less room for uncertainty in our conversations with people. We can then go on to explain if we think it would be beneficial to the conversation- otherwise, give people what they’re looking for- that simple answer. I try not to get too overwhelmed with those kinds of questions, but I’m also very comfortable answering either way. I’ve trained my kids to tell people the grade level they would most likely be placed in at school.
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  28. Oh I’m glad I’m not the only one who balks at the question of finding out where a child should be. One learns to smile lovingly and say, “That’s the beauty of homeschool…..”

    My daughter just had an 8th grade grad party. But truth-be-known, we don’t follow grade levels. This was more of a transitional celebration as we begin high school transcripts and such. But no, most of the time the children have no idea what grade they would be in if they were in school.

  29. Though I pay less attention to grade level even than most homeschoolers (since we unschool) we actually have an easy answer to the “grade” question: I teach my kids to tell which class they go to in Sunday school, since they stay with their agemates at church regardless of what sort of academic learning they do at home.
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  30. I used to tell everyone that the girls are in “Homeschool/ High School” because even tho they were middle school aged I was teaching them high school level courses.. mixed with a few college courses so that they were completely ready for college or technical college when they felt ready to go.

  31. My 7 year old was asked what grade he was in and he thought for a minute and then told the woman, very seriously, that he was in grade 7. She wasn’t sure if he was joking or not. He told me later that he had no idea what she was talking about and just gave her his age.

  32. Thanks for the reminder. I always get stuck on the grade level thing. My kids went through the same thing when asked what grade they are in. I finally just told them to say the grade they are registered for, that way there are no follow up questions from nosy parents. Most of the time the kids don’t think twice about it but I’ve had some parents get a little upity about my kids not knowing what grade they are in. haha Great post!

  33. I definitely agree about not containing our children in grade level learning … Holding them back because they are doing more advanced things than their grade level? No way! And I’ve struggled with the issues of “but other kids her age are doing this in school…what am I doing wrong?” thoughts….but am learning to relax more and more into the fact that they ARE learning and don’t need to fit into a box. However, I do need to know whether my children are, at the minimum, on course for their grade level because we are required to test every few years. In addition, they just like to be able to answer the “what grade are you in” question….and I’m OK with that.

  34. It seems like, perhaps, the UK has a better idea when they say “Year” instead of “Grade” so your child could say “I’m in Year Three” or “I’m a Third Year student” in this respect they are letting the person know how many years they have been formally schooled without attaching a grade level to it.
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  35. Great article. I homeschool my 3 younger boys. We do most of our subjects together as a group and this year our Science/History is at a 5/6th grade level. My youngest 8yrs (3rd???) is keeping right up there with his brothers on these subjects. He does use a 3rd grade cursive book, as he is just learning this skill. So I guess his is a 3rd/5th/6th grader.

  36. This is SO what I needed to read today! Thank you so much for this. This is our first year homeschooling, and neither of us (my son being the other person) have had any idea of how to respond to this question…and it seems like the only question people can think to ask.
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  37. Thanks for sharing this! I made my husband read it as we just starting homeschooling our 11 and 13 year olds. It helped him a lot!
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  38. Thanks for this! I made my husband read it as we just started homeschooling our 11 and 13 year olds and it helped him a lot.
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  39. We just had a similar discussion about this in our local hs group. One mom said when someone asks why her kids aren’t in school she sometimes fights the urge to say, “What! Why didn’t you tell me you had school today?” And then grab the kids and run out.

    Another mom said she and her kids scratch their heads and say they have lice :)

    God gave us our sense of humor. Might as well use it 😉

  40. I am homeschool 3 kids. This is actually my 8th year and I still struggle with the grade level thing. My oldest daughter is technically in 8th grade, but she has Aspergers and I just actually talked to her about not doing 9th grade work next year. We use My Father’s World and I made the decision not to put her in the more independent work which had lots of writing and so forth. I just know she would never keep up in the 9th grade level work. She’s still struggling so much with writing and we do Math U See for Math. She’s still in fractions when she *should be* in pre-algebra or higher. Yet, I know I’m doing what is best. I’m going at her pace, not pushing her at all. I had her in special ed at the public school and they just wanted to push her through in math so they didn’t have her master anything. So I had to go back and actually reteach multiplication and division to her before pushing her on to fractions/decimals/percents. It’s been frustrating to say the least, but I am keeping on this very slow path and if she doesn’t graduate at 18, that’s ok. My other daughter is 10 and she is actually doing the same math book as my oldest, so this sometimes is hard for my oldest to accept, but also good in that she tries to stay ahead in the lessons so she can “beat” her sister. They might even graduate at the same time the way they are going. I hope not. That will end badly, I think. My youngest child is an over achiever and when he gets something, he just flies right through it. I chose to skip half the K curriculum because it was way too boring and easy for him. Now we are flying through phonics in 1st grade and I might also have to skip him on to 2nd grade work before I’m finished with this. Again, its too easy. The one reason I like to know where my kids are at with grade levels is by law, I’m required to test them at the end of the year and see where they are at. It does get depressing when you get a piece of paper back stating your child is below percentile for their grade. By law, we are required to get help if that happens, which I’ve done, but we also have to take steps to remedy it once they are diagnosed, like with my daughter. I’ve had her out of therapy now for a year. I just don’t see paying a bunch of money to someone is going to help…so I’m taking a break with therapy for now. She’s actually doing better, but she still has major learning gaps. So I do take the time to gauge where she was, where she is now and see if she’s progressed. If not, maybe I need to think more about the next steps. It helps for me in planning how to proceed. I don’t care really otherwise about grades, but I think its a good thing to see where the gaps are and where you can fill them in better. The public school sure doesn’t do a good job of that, but as a homeschooling mom, I feel I can. Sorry for the long rant. Appreciated your views on this matter as I just found this blog today :)
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  41. I am a new homeschooler, and found your blog through a link on “Simple Homeschool” while I was looking over the Day in a Life series. I love, love, love this post and oh, how it resonates with me and my 7 and 9 year olds! Thank you!! I do look forward to visiting here again soon.
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  42. Christina says:

    Although, this article is several years old, it has made a tremendous difference in how I feel. It made me feel so much better about the direction I’m taking with my son’s curriculum.

    Due to his poor performance in his first year at a Common Core school, we’ve decided to homeschool him. He is 10 right now, has Asperger’s, Sensory Processing Disorder, and possibly dyslexia (if he would cooperate with the test). We moved last spring from Texas, a non-common core school, where he excelled in Math, Science, and Social Studies. He has always struggled with Reading and Writing. Well, this past year, with Common Core, he has tanked. Where he could easily do Math in his head, he struggled to do some of the simplest problems on paper due to the method that the school wanted him to do. They barely covered Science, which really deflated his drive. It was all about the convoluted math method and writing/composition.

    As I just spent the last four days of mind-numbing research on what curriculum would be best based on our budget and what he needs, I threw my hands up and said, “Forget it! I’m just going to put together a lesson plan and build a curriculum for him!” I used to teach, build lesson plans, and assist with writing courses for the military, I’m pretty sure I can do it for my son.

    So, he may be on 3rd grade reading, 8th grade science, and 5th grade math. Who cares! As long as he progresses, learns, and isn’t stressed by being in a classroom setting, it shouldn’t matter.

    TL:DR – Sorry for the long post. Thank you for your post it has been extremely helpful.

  43. Karl Bielefeldt says:

    A teacher was just suspended at my son’s former school due to cheating on a standardized test, which got me thinking about other ways these time boxes we call grades are harmful. There are no other industries that operate this way. Can you imagine taking your car to the mechanic, who works on it for a day, runs a test at the end of the day, then says, “Well, it still won’t run right, but my time is up. Don’t worry, we will try even harder on our next batch of customers tomorrow.” Working on a concept for as long as a child needs, and no longer, ought to be blindingly obvious.

  44. Great thoughts! When I was homeschooled (in high school) I would tell people I was a freshman, sophomore, etc, according to my age but we did nothing to keep up with “grade level”. Every person is different so why should they all accomplish the same things at the same age?
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  45. loved your article! so refreshing; I so needed the encouragement too since my family just grilled me about our children’s grades for the coming year.

  46. We have a daughter come lately who is 12 and two who are in their 20’s and graduated homeschool awhile back. Now I am experiencing dealing with younger moms because my daughter’s friend’s moms tend to be about 8-10 years younger than me. I’m going to share this article because they are young and inexperienced enough to fret about getting the right grade level curriclium or following the public schools schedule for what to teach when.
    It’s rather annoying especially when they look at me like I just stepped off a space ship from the planet Crazy because I suggest doing a unit study or two on a subject their child is interested in to see how they like that. I’d like to point at my two college students on the Dean’s list every semester and say ‘trust me on this’ but most of them won’t let go of the sacred grade level notion.
    Oh well, enjoyed the tips. And my kids usually looked at me when asked “What grade are you in?” Sometime I answered with a grade, sometimes I would say we haven’t really been keeping up with that. (Or grading papers, or testing, or rigid scheduling for that matter)
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  47. Our current plan is to transition our children into a private school after we moved back to the US, so I have been using the typical grades when talking about our homeschooling. However, my daughter was upset at the end of kindergarten to be going into 1st grade, because it wasn’t a ‘garden’ anymore. Soooo…we’ll be calling it First Garden this fall :)

  48. I’ve often wondered how to reply when people ask me what grade my grandkids are in – I’ve done the math in my head real quick and said, “if they were in public school they’d be in grade . . .” But this article sheds light on the bigger picture of what it means to allow a child to develop at their own pace in individual subjects and puts into perspective the pressure in a more structured school environment to have kids all perform on the same level in all subjects. Helpful for me as a grandparent of homeschooled grandkids. My response in the future will be different.

  49. chyteal jones says:

    I’m new at homeschooling my 5 and 8 year olds. I’m still fighting to come out of the grade level boxes. When I first began, I was intrigued by the fact that there was a possibility of my children going to college at a younger age than normal high schoolers would. I’m now stuck. How do I know if they reach middle school or high school level? My state requires that the kids do 180 hours every year…. In that case, is there a certain amount of hours they need to be considered a high schooler? See, I’m still in a box and can’t get pass if I’m giving them all the time they need to finish up or not in the end. Help (smile)!!!

  50. Thanks for this article. I agree that people get way too hung up on grade levels. I pulled my 10th-grade daughter out of public school in December, so we are sticking with that. When it comes to graduation requirements, however, that could change quickly. :)

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