So, you've decided to homeschool your child. You feel liberated—the possibilities are endless. Then panic sets in. What do you do now?

The first thing that homeschooling parents should know is that homeschooling is legal, though the paperwork for every state varies, says Ian Slatter from the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), a religious-based nonprofit association. According to the HSLDA:

  • There are 10 states which require nothing in the way of paperwork: Connecticut, New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Alaska, and Idaho.
  • There are 15 states which require parents merely to let them know homeschooling is happening: Delaware, Washington D.C., Kentucky, Alabama, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, California, Montana, Arizona, Utah, and Wyoming.
  • There are 20 states which require parents to submit test scores, and/or professional evaluation of student progress: Maine, New Hampshire, Maryland, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Arkansas, Lousiana, Tennessee, Iowa, MInnesota, South Dakota, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Hawaii.
  • There are 6 states with the highest level of red tape, where parents must provide test scores and/or professional evaluation, plus curriculum approval by the state, teacher qualification of parents, or home visits by state officials: Vermont, New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and North Dakota.

Mary Griffith is a homeschooling parent and author of The Homeschooling Handbook and, most recently, Viral Learning: Reflections on a Homeschooling Life . She says the best way to get information about legalities is through your statewide homeschooling support group. Many of these groups put on conferences that feature workshops, lectures and other programs. Griffith says there will be many ideas about homeschooling presented, none of which are gospel, and parents should pick and choose what they want to take away. “ The real benefit of a conference is interaction with other homeschooling families that have done it for a while,” she says.

State and national support groups can hook you up to your local support groups. That's important because one of the major potential pitfalls of homeschooling is isolation. Success rarely happens in a vacuum. Plus, support groups can be a great way to socialize your homeschooler through joint trips to museums, state parks, theaters, camp outs and other planned events. The National Home Education Network has a support group database on their web site at www.nhen.org/support/groups/browse.asp

Next, you should research what types of curriculum or methods you want to use, depending on how your child learns. Here are some typical homeschooling structures:

  • Traditional - Just as the name implies, students use a textbook, and have a set schedule and daily assignments. This method usually includes a packaged curriculum. Homeschooling experts warn parents to be wary of buying expensive packaged curriculum before knowing the traditional method is right for their child. A cheap way to score great curriculum, according to Dunaway, is to get used textbooks from public school curriculum libraries.
  • Classical - This method follows the premise that there are certain skills and facts that kids should know, such as the great works of Western literature.
  • Unschooling - This method allows kids to learn by exploring the world around them. Dunaway developed what she calls a “curriculum of care” for her children: they spent an entire year doing service projects, which delved into many subjects. “When packing bags [at a shelter] you divide out how many blankets you can give. It's a way of thinking about what we're learning,” she says.
  • Unit studies - Here, learning in all subjects is based around a theme.

Don't worry about finding the perfect fit. Parents should feel free to mix and match methods, according to Dunaway.

Another to keep in mind is how specialized you want your curriculum to be. At about age 9, children tend to hone in on particular interests, such as music, dance, or foreign language, according to Griffith. She says those interests can be satisfied through tutors, or mentors in the community who enjoy sharing information about their life's passions. Homeschoolers can also trade their skills with a practice known as co-oping. If you have a background in English, for instance, you may be wondering how you'll teach trigonometry. Well, there may be a parent with a degree in mathematics in your area thinking, “How am I going to teach grammar rules?”

If there aren't any homeschoolers nearby, the Internet remains one of the best ways for parents and students to research interests together, Griffith says; not only does it teach the child about the subject, but also about the process of learning. “You come across a lot of crummy information. This gives kids practice picking and choosing, rather than just taking the information that's handed to them in a textbook,” she says.

What about assessment? Some parents choose a traditional grading system, some keep narrative evaluation in the form of journals and diaries, while others prefer portfolios. Griffith says most parents will develop an intuitive sense for how their child is doing, and learn to ask themselves the essential questions, “Are they curious and do they have the skills to follow up on their curiosity?”

Most of all, learn to live with uncertainty, and don't be afraid to follow your gut. Intuition is key for homeschoolers, Griffith says, especially when the going gets tough. Public school parents worry, too - it's part of being a parent - but that doesn't necessarily mean your child is on the wrong track. Learning to trust yourself and your kids will prove to be your greatest tool.