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Solving the Homeschool Field Trip No Show Problem

Field Trip No ShowPeople Don’t Value Free Events

In 1997, when we lived in Florida, my best buddy and I decided to team together to start a homeschool choir for elementary aged kids. Becky would play the piano, I would conduct. We’d hold it at my house.

Since we had, at the time, six elementary aged kids between us, we already had a good start. We opened the group to the local homeschooling community and began to spread the word. We planned to offer the class for free, to make it available to as many as possible, but another homeschool mom disagreed.

Debbie — whose daughter was going to join the choir — warned me that if I offered it for free, people wouldn’t take it seriously. If they didn’t pay something, they would not attend consistently and would not feel committed. With her advice in hand, we charged a nominal monthly fee that would help cover the cost of music.

In 2005, living in Utah, I started a swing choir for teenagers. Given my experience with the Boca Homeschoolers Choir, I followed the same plan. The kids paid for their own costumes and music and added $10 per month — for the sake of feeling invested.

Fast forward to 2013. Although I do run a boys’ game club for homeschoolers, we are too busy to spend much time planning major homeschooling events. Over the past few years I’ve coordinated a few paid events (like musical theater performances and space camp), but a few weeks ago, I offered space in a free event. My mistake. 

The venue (the acoustics lab in the BYU physics department) was kind enough to set up two simultaneous tours for two different age groups (grades 4–6 and 7–9). Doing so is a convenience for homeschooling parents because it allows them to bring many of their kids at one time.

They asked that I bring 15 kids per group, for a total of 30 kids.

Once I created the event, I advertised it around a few groups. Both groups filled up within a day and I informed the Physic department. I had a number of people ask if they could get in, but I could not add more spaces.

The night before the event, the downward spiral began.

One mom contacted me to say she couldn’t come with her two kids. In the next 12 hours, 70% of those who had signed up to come either cancelled or just failed to show up.

Because the reputation of the collective homeschooling community can be impacted by no-shows — and because I had personally made the commitment — I spent more three hours (that I did not have!) scrambling to find people who could come to fill at least a few of the vacated slots. I posted to email lists and Facebook groups. I even sent personal emails and made phone calls to homeschoolers I know in the appropriate age groups.

Of course, some people had unavoidable and unexpected emergencies, but many  made other plans, changed their minds, or didn’t take the responsibility to schedule the event. One person emailed me to say:

I am so sorry we missed the field trip today! We are still adjusting to the demands of homeschooling and did not receive the reminder until a few minutes ago.

While I appreciated the apology, I was surprised she blamed the fact that she hadn’t received my courtesy reminder — for a field trip she explicitly registered for and received ticketing information about.

It’s enough of a problem that three homeschool moms who saw my efforts to fill the spaces emailed me to commiserate and to tell me that was exactly why they had stopped coordinating homeschool events.

Not Just a Homeschool Problem

To be clear, the problem of being unreliable when there is no cash at stake isn’t confined to the homeschooling community. As an entrepreneur and conservative/libertarian, this should have come as no surprise to me. I’ve argued endlessly that when people get “free” stuff (school, healthcare, rent, etc.) they are not nearly as careful with it as they are if they have a financial interest and had to work for the item in question.

It’s the same reason our kids pay for the bulk of their own consumable items and classes and camps as well as for college.

But there is ample information out there if you just look for it. For example, see:


While it would be nice if people were just generally dependable, statistically it’s not true. Are there ways to solve these problems as a matter of group psychology? Are there things we can do to avoid:

  1. Tarnishing the reputation of homeschooler in general as being unreliable
  2. Discouraging those who set up field trips for the homeschool community

Here are some ideas I collected. Please share your own!

  1. Charge a nominal fee. Statistically, this doesn’t reduce attendance, but it does provide incentive.
  2. Charge a small fee per participant and reimburse it to those who actually show up.
  3. Count “strikes” against no-shows with a policy that they can’t sign up after X number of flake outs.
  4. Emphasis that registration is a commitment to attend and that they should not reserve a spot “just in case” they can come.
  5. Anticipate a small percentage of cancellations when you book the event.
  6. Send a reminder a few days in advance.
  7. Keep a waiting list to accommodate cancellations.
  8. Offer small rewards to those who show up.
  9. Food!
  10. Give assignments to the moms who have children attending.

Please share your ideas to improve attendance and reliability at homeschooling events in the comments below!

{ 23 comments… add one }

  • Kingpin October 28, 2013, 7:52 pm

    Sometimes you just have to recognize that the group you’re in is full of people who have no respect for the time and efforts of others. If that is the case in your area, I suggest you step back and plan events for just your family and close friends.

    You can’t retrain boorish adults!

  • MonteLBean October 28, 2013, 7:54 pm

    In my experience, it can be tricky. I like to plan things with lots of kids because it’s fun for MY kids. But I’ve had the same problem with people just being rude and self-centered and blowing you off if something more interesting comes up.

    I once planned an event and a woman told me they decided to go to the park because the sun was out. Another one said she wanted to go to lunch with her husband because she didn’t usually get the chance. Yet another said they stayed up for family movie night the night before and decided to sleep in. 😛

  • Cara Brooke October 28, 2013, 9:20 pm

    Charge money. I’ve experienced the same thing, over and over again. It’s not just homeschoolers, it’s everyone. To put your money where your mouth is is the defining criteria of commitment. I’ve never had good turn outs for free events, just for things that people pay money for in advance. I’m sorry about the physics thing flaming out on you, that had to be disappointing.

    I wouldn’t recommend offering incentives, or doing a “strikes-out” policy–those are methods kept in reserve for children, not functioning adults who have made the decision to provide their children’s educations. We all know how to keep a promise, and we all know the importance of keeping our word once we’ve agreed to be somewhere at a specific time. And really, do you WANT to spend your time with people who need their hands held in order to honor their commitments? Find some other homeschoolers to field trip with, who won’t give you all that stress.

    I don’t say this as someone who thinks they have a perfect track record in this regard–I do know firsthand of the consequences of being that unreliable person and how much it hurts the group and relationships in the long run. I strive to not be that person ever again. Which is why I rarely sign up for anything homeschool group-related anymore–I’ve found that I’m way excited when we’re talking about the idea of doing something, but then when it gets closer, I just don’t want to do it anymore and/or upset my carefully made lesson plans. I’m an introvert, and I have really great lesson plans! :)

    Don’t feel the pressure to be the poster mama of homeschooling! You do not represent the entire movement all on your own, and it’s absolutely ridiculous if someone makes a snap judgment about all however-many-million of us based upon one experience with one specific group of homeschoolers. That is not your burden–you showed up.

    I know, it’s frustrating regardless…but you have to be realistic when planning things for homeschoolers, who are, in general, a group of people who have no qualms about bucking the system in order to satisfy their desires and interests–why else would they be homeschooling to begin with?

    Know who you’re dealing with, and plan your events realistically. It’s not pessimistic if it’s the actual reality that you’re dealing with.
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  • Carly October 28, 2013, 11:03 pm

    Been there, done that. I’m so over planning field trips! Just take my own kids and friends.

  • Karen October 29, 2013, 8:59 am

    I like #10 the best. Never thought of that. We do it at church, why not at homeschool events? Of course, that does mean more work for the organizer…

  • Shelly Davis October 29, 2013, 10:15 am

    I’m sorry I don’t have much help for this very annoying problem. I’m one of those who doesn’t organize anything except papers, files, and folders. But my boys and I thought that BYU Acoustics tour was the one of the coolest things ever! Really fascinating and we learned things we had no idea about. And our group asked lots of great questions and our knowledgeable guide answered every one. People really missed out.

  • Alison Moore Smith October 29, 2013, 10:58 am

    Kingpin, I had more people than you would probably guess say similar things privately to me! Many said they tried to set up field trips, but decided just to deal with family and close friends — who they knew wouldn’t bail on them!

    MonteLBean (great museum, BTW, can’t wait until they reopen next spring — maybe I’ll set up a field trip, ahem!), yup, it’s a problem for sure. Commitments should mean more.

    If only those with true emergencies backed out, it wouldn’t be an issue.

    Karen, isn’t that the truth! I never made the connection, but in the LDS church, at least, part of fellowship is assigning callings and responsibilities, because it gives incentive to show up and take action. (I got that idea from someone else, too.)
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  • Alison Moore Smith October 29, 2013, 10:59 am

    Thanks, Shelly! I’m glad you and your boys enjoyed it. Mine did, too.

    If we have some tools to resolve these problems, I think more people would offer things (and/or continue to offer things!) to the community for the benefit of all of us.

    I actually got idea #2 from a woman who organized a field trip at BYU’s Museum of Art. She required everyone to send in a check for $5 per child before she would secure their spot. She never cashed the checks, just returned them as the parents arrived. It seemed to work as a good incentive.

    I’m loathe to collect and handle checks, but I might require a nominal PayPal charge and then return all but the PayPal fees to the participants who show up.

    What do you all think?
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  • Daisy October 29, 2013, 12:04 pm

    I have this exact same issue.
    There was only one secular group in my area when we began homeschooling. They were not very active and usually entertained drama and bashing of parents that didn’t agree with their philosophies.
    I decided to start my own free to join, secular, field trip based group. As of right now, we have 150 families with 38 waiting for our next review period. Each family has 3 months to attend at least 1 event. If they don’t show up (without a major medical emergency), they are removed from the group. They are allowed to rejoin the group but they are added to the bottom of the list. We capped the group at 150. It was getting to be too much to keep up with.
    When we have events that have a prepayment required, there is a cut off date to receive a refund. After that date, they must find someone to take their place and that family can reimburse them or they lose out on their money.
    I haven’t enforced the flake out rule yet but the 3 month rule helps out with that.

  • Alison Moore Smith October 29, 2013, 12:18 pm

    Daisy, thanks for your input and good ideas!

    If you’d be willing to write up a post, detailing how you set up your group, I think it would be VERY helpful to many homeschoolers! Just contact us using the contact form in the footer!
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  • Lisa October 29, 2013, 12:22 pm

    This post was very good for me. I feel so bad about events I sign up to come to, and don’t show up to. I apologize afterword, but after reading this, I feel really awful. I haven’t been signing up for very many things, because with 5 kids of all different ages, it is so hard to know when someone will not feel well (including me). I know I don’t feel well OFTEN, so I don’t sign up for much anymore. I feel sad, but I think, in the future, when I no longer have morning sickness, we’ll be able to do more. I personally prefer the group meet ups which require no obligation, as in, “We are having playgroup! Please come! We’d love to see you there!” That way, I can keep a reminder posted in my house and if everything works out, we go to it. If I have too much morning sickness (that is generally the reason) I don’t feel bad, because I never promised anyone I would come.

    I have been on the OTHER side of the fence. When I started homeschooling, I offered a free art class. After a while, I figured out that I must be very clear about the day of the week. I had a family show up the next day! My house was a mess, so we did it outside on the lawn, because it was that kind of weather. I had different families come each week. In a way, it was awesome because I got to meet a lot of new people. It was hard, though. Some weeks, nobody would show up. Some weeks, it was packed like crazy. It was a little hard when it was packed, because some did not bring art supplies (which I asked for) for their kids and I didn’t have enough for everyone. It was also hard to build up from lesson to lesson, because usually, it was one family’s first class and another family’s 2nd or 3rd class. The beginner family had a hard time catching up.

    Later, another local homeschool art teacher told me to charge money for the class and for supplies, and to buy the supplies, myself. She also said to target a specific age group. I did that. Nobody signed up for the class. I offered a different class for a different age group. Again, nobody signed up for the class.

    The result? I said, forget it!

  • Alison Moore Smith October 29, 2013, 12:32 pm

    Carly and Cara Brooke, your comments got lost in the spam filter temporarily. Sorry about that. You are now free! :)

    Cara Brooke:

    To put your money where your mouth is is the defining criteria of commitment. I’ve never had good turn outs for free events, just for things that people pay money for in advance.

    That just stinks, doesn’t it? Like with my choirs, I truly wanted to provide a service. I still did, but it would not only have been easier for me, but easier for others if I could have removed the finances from the mix! Human nature gets in the way of good intentions!

    And really, do you WANT to spend your time with people who need their hands held in order to honor their commitments? Find some other homeschoolers to field trip with, who won’t give you all that stress.

    Kind of the 80/20 (or Pareto) principle at work. It works in business, too. Generally speaking, 80% of the problem will come from 20% of the clients. You’ll tend to be more productive — and profitable! — if you “fire” the 20% of customers who give you the problems and focus on the ones who do not.

    I’ve practiced that in my web setup business, but never in a homeschool environment.

    Thanks for your great advice and frank discussion. We need it!

    I’ve found that I’m way excited when we’re talking about the idea of doing something, but then when it gets closer, I just don’t want to do it anymore and/or upset my carefully made lesson plans.

    I think this reminder should be posted on all event registrations!

    …you have to be realistic when planning things for homeschoolers, who are, in general, a group of people who have no qualms about bucking the system in order to satisfy their desires and interests

    Haha. I actually said this to the families when I organized my swing choir. I said, “Hey, I know you like to do your own thing and you don’t like external demands and schedules. This, however, is a GROUP experience and it falls apart if GROUP members aren’t committed.”

    It didn’t solve the problem entirely, but it helped. The kids were generally good about prioritizing the PRIOR COMMITMENT over other things.
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  • Alison Moore Smith October 29, 2013, 12:35 pm

    Lisa, thanks for the insightful comment. I think you’ve found a good solution for your family at this time: choose things that don’t require registration and where people won’t count on you to attend. Good on you!

    Totally understand the pain with the art class. And so sad that the community lost that benefit. That’s what I’m talking about!
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  • Molly October 29, 2013, 3:38 pm

    Talk about how when you as a parent don’t keep your commitments, you aren’t setting a good example for your kids. 😉

  • Alison Moore Smith October 29, 2013, 7:19 pm

    Oh, yes! Honestly, since homeschool parents are more influential than ever — just true when you have so much “face time” — what we do is more influential than ever. (And that’s not always a good thing, in my case!)

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  • Kathleen October 29, 2013, 7:32 pm

    Great article. Sorry you had the negative experience. My personal opinion is that people just don’t take responsibility for themselves anymore and unfortunately, they are teaching the same thing to their children. We are raising a country of people with no accountability. People thing everything is free and their actions don’t matter or effect anyone else. It’s a sad, sad day for our society.
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  • Alison Moore Smith October 29, 2013, 7:36 pm

    Kathleen, of course. The general attitudes of the culture are prevalent everywhere.

    My surprise, I think, comes from the fact that homeschoolers are different. I mean, when you’re willing to go outside of the norm and take back responsibility for educating your kids — what most people (erroneously) see as an utterly insurmountable task — you’d think they would take responsibility for showing up when/where they say they will. Or at least I would. Generally. Most of the time. More than 30%…
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  • tawnimise October 30, 2013, 5:44 am

    So interesting! It’s my first year homeschooling, and we tried to set up a swim group at my home. I have an indoor pool, but because its small, I could only have so many people ‘ sign up’. I offered it for free. Even though it was ‘ booked’ only one family showed the first time. None the second, so I cancelled the others because I didn’t want the stress of cleaning my house ( because you have to walk through it to get to the pool), and getting everything ready for a no show. I’ll be honest, it was very hard not to take it personally. After reading the article I realize maybe I dont have to take it personally, but use some of the strategies you discussed. Great article.

  • Alison Moore Smith October 30, 2013, 9:05 am

    Thanks so much for sharing your story. It’s very true that it’s hard not to take it personally when you’ve done the work. But I think it’s societal and also, as Kathleen said above, a not-so-great part of homeschooling culture. “We do our own thing. Don’t tell us what to do.”

    I hope you’ll try an activity again, perhaps using a strategy that might help. We all do better when we contribute (and when we’re responsible).
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  • Melanie Cameron October 30, 2013, 1:13 pm

    One way I have found to solve the problem of offering free field trips or classes is to start a group or co-op. We have a group of about 10 families who all plan together for field trips and classes. Each parent is asked to come up with a class they can teach for a quarter, semester, or the whole school year. We ask for student sign-ups at the beginning of a quarter or semester for classes. Some classes have a materials fee; others do not. Occasionally, we have a parent who cannot teach a class. That is OK as long as they consistently bring their children to the classes they are signed up for. Sometimes we have parents/students outside the group who are interested in our classes. We leave acceptance of those students up to the teacher. Because we all know each other and our group is relatively small we find that no-shows without an excuse (out of town, sick) are very rare. We also have a treasure trove of classes to choose from – like Boys Club, Girls Club, art, Spanish, Chinese, Cultural Anthropology, cooking, various science classes, novel writing, underwater robotics, classic literature, various computer classes, music, etc. Money is not the only thing that talks – reciprocal time does, too.

  • Paula November 2, 2013, 5:47 am

    Great tips for insuring participation and not just for home school events. Hosting an event is a lot of work!
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  • Jackie November 4, 2013, 2:11 pm

    We charge $1/person for free field trips, and then donate that money to charity or to our scholarship fund. It has cut our no show rate at least by half. We also have a no-show, 3 strikes policy, but have rarely enforced it.

    The more expensive the field trip, the less likely people are to miss it.

  • Alison Moore Smith November 4, 2013, 2:39 pm

    Great idea, Jackie. Thank you!
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