Today, I’d like to share an excerpt from a play I’m writing titled: “Independent Work in the Homeschool.”
CHILD #1: MOM! Mommy! Mom-mom-mom-mooooooom!
FRAZZLED MOTHER: What is it? I’m trying to teach your brother about decimals.
CHILD #2: I need to ask you a question.
CHILD #1: I was here first!
FRAZZLED MOTHER: You both need to wait just five more minutes.
CHILDREN 1 & 2: But I need you noooooooow!
Staring at the ceiling, FRAZZLED MOTHER expires from sheer exhaustion and frustration.
Sound familiar? I know it’s a scene that’s currently playing out in households across the world, and I’m guessing it’s made an appearance in your own living room recently.
Trying to wear all your hats- parent, teacher, house cleaner, chef, chauffeur, etc etc- is actively impossible without some cooperation from your kids. But they don’t seem interested in playing house, learning Spanish, or even going to the bathroom without you! Unfortunately, I won’t have time to go over toilet training in today’s article (but, uh, good luck!), but I CAN share how to get your kids to learn independently.
If you want your homeschool to start running at least ten times smoother, your kids to start developing some real-world, mom-won’t-always be-around skills, and also find a few minutes to string together for yourself, increasing independent work time is the answer. In fact, I think children working independently is so important to a functioning homeschool that we basically wrote a whole ebook about it.
So let’s break it down- how do you get your kids to do independent work?
Don’t make yourself too available
I know this might sound harsh at first glance, but hear me out.
This was the hardest lesson I learned in my first year of teaching. After all, I assumed that teachers helped when kids had problems! But when I made myself 100% available to my kids, they actually learned less. This is because I was only one teacher and they had many, many questions.
If your kids learn that you’ll answer their questions immediately every time, they won’t think twice about asking every. single. time. they have a question. They’ll interrupt you without thinking, and they’ll never consider delaying the gratification of knowing an answer immediately. It’s not entirely their fault either; you’ve unknowingly taught them that behavior is okay.
Instead, teach your children that some times are off-limits. One teacher I knew used to wear a special princess crown during short times when she was unavailable to take questions or solve non-emergency problems. This visual cue helped remind her kids when they could and couldn’t run up to her with bug news, basic reminders, or general tattling grievances.
Your own realistic expectations will likely look different. Maybe you’ll create a standard at home that the ten minutes after lunch are Mom Only time. Or maybe when you’re in the restroom, you’re not to be disturbed. Expect some pushback and pouting when you roll out these new plans, but stick to your guns. You’ll quickly see some changes!
Give them strategies
This is an especially important point if your kids have ALREADY gotten in the habit of interrupting, nagging, and asking (even when you think they know the answer). The easiest way to break an old habit isn’t to just quit cold turkey, but replace one bad habit with one good habit.
So give them some new strategies they need to use instead of running up to you every second. Maybe they should ask a sibling first, re-read directions, or sit quietly with their hand raised. You know what will work best in your individual homeschool, so create independent work strategies that gel with your individual family.
Increase their independent work stamina
Just like a muscle, learning to do independent work takes time and practice to build up. And just like you wouldn’t start weight training with 100 reps of 20lbs, you need to teach your kids to work independently in short, manageable chunks of time. Start by expecting five or ten minutes. Then, gradually increase your expectations to anything up to what a child of their age is generally capable of (accounting for any special needs, of course).
In the Homeschool Resource Room ebook on learning centers, we talk about how to create these chunks, so check that out for a more detailed explanation!
Expect independent work, not miracles
This is a lesson you likely learned the first time you took a hungry, overtired toddler to the grocery store. At some point in that trip, whether it was the meltdown in the cereal aisle or the tearful wails at checkout, you realized your mistake. Having an exhausted, famished toddler behave perfectly in the store would have actually been a miracle. This isn’t to say that every tantrum is your fault (far from it!), but kids stand a much better chance of behaving if you’ve met their basic needs like food, sleep, and cuddles.
In the same vein, a homeschool stands to produce successful independent learners best if your expectations are reasonable.
Academically, this means giving your kids work that’s appropriate to their level. If you give a kid work that’s three grade levels above them, it shouldn’t be a surprise if they don’t understand and have questions. Work that’s far beneath them might similarly produce confusion and/or defiance.
Behaviorally, consider the temperaments of your child(ren) and their natural tendencies. If you have two kids who get on like oil and water, maybe you shouldn’t expect them to work together without some serious teamwork training and lots of practice. Also, do your best to account for your children’s food, sensory, and sleep needs before expecting them to work independently.
Trust your children
This is one area where I personally struggle. It’s so easy to keep seeing your kids as the helpless chicks they once were, the ones who needed you to cluck around them day and night. Instead, trust them to leave the little nest every so often.
This will mean allowing them to make mistakes occasionally! The trick is minimizing the possible trouble they could get in and starting small. Then, when they do mess up, show them how to learn from the mistake and move on without shaming or blaming them.
Of course you’ll have to consider what’s age appropriate, but when your kids see that you trust them to complete tasks and act more grown up, their soaring confidence can really take them places.
That’s all for today, friends! If you’re looking for more concrete ideas for a tried-and-true homeschool system that will help increase your kids’ independent work, let me tell you. You really, REALLY need to check out the Homeschool Resource Room’s new ebook, Learning Centers.
Hillary is a former teacher who went rogue and became a freelance writer. When not offering support and advice to homeschooling families, she tends to her own garden, family, and cat. You can connect with her on her website, homegrownhillary.com.